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'It's all or nothing' for presidential candidate Cyril Ramaphosa

By early next week Ramaphosa could be on the brink of becoming South Africa’s next president, or be consigned to the scrapheap of our national politics

10 December 2017 - 00:00 By S'THEMBISO MSOMI
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has everything to gain, or lose, with his quest to become president.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has everything to gain, or lose, with his quest to become president.
Image: Moeletsi Mabe

By the look of it, Cyril Ramaphosa will be ANC president by Tuesday next week - or be fired as the country's deputy president before the new year. There is no middle ground. Those in the ANC still hoping for a negotiated settlement where Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma emerge from next weekend's ANC national conference as president and deputy president, respectively, or vice versa, are in for a major disappointment.

It is now clear that the "unity" negotiations that Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza and other acolytes of President Jacob Zuma were punting excluded Ramaphosa from the leadership equation. The Zuma camp sought to use the talks to isolate Ramaphosa by including all of those on his slate in the national executive committee that will be elected next week while leaving him in the cold.


He was born Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa in Soweto and  attended Mphaphuli High  School in Venda before studying law at the University of the North.

The camp's attitude would have been further hardened by two developments of the past four days.

The first was Ramaphosa's 702 interview with Karima Brown where, after being pressed for an answer, he stated that he believed the accusation by Fezekile Kuzwayo - known as Khwezi - that Zuma raped her in 2005. Ramaphosa would have known the question would come.

At first Ramaphosa seemed to choose his words carefully, stressing the need to balance the fact that Zuma was acquitted by the high court on the charge and the reality that Khwezi accused the president.

"I have to deal with both the issues that are germane in this case because the one is what the judge said and what the judge said is not a fable. It is a reality that finally led to President Jacob Zuma's acquittal. But at the same time there is a side of me that says, yes, there was a young woman who complained that she was raped. I have to listen to that and pay heed to that, pledge my sympathy and empathy to her story.

TimesLIVE looks back at Cyril Ramaphosa’s political career as the ANC gathers in Gauteng to elect its new leader.

Do you believe her, though? Brown insisted.

"She put her evidence before the court ... and when you're dealing with issues of gender-based violence, when you're dealing with issues of rape the general tendency is sometimes to dismiss ... and I know how difficult and painful it is for a woman to garner the courage to stand up and say: 'Yes, I was raped.' It must be one of the most difficult decisions that she has to make. So yes, I would believe her," Ramaphosa responded.


Zuma and his supporters were outraged.

"The ANC Youth League strongly feels [the] need to respond categorically to this bile spewed by Ramaphosa. This is bile because this is an act of desperation at a full demonstration and proves that his [Ramaphosa's] conscience has long left him and not under any circumstance does he show that he can lead the ANC," barked the league's spokesman, Mlondi Mkhize.

Zuma's office was also not pleased, issuing a terse statement that suggested Ramaphosa showed little respect for the courts.


He was detained for 11 months in Pretoria Central Prison in 1974, and for six months in John Vorster Square after the Soweto uprising in 1976.

"The Presidency affirms the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the primacy of the courts as the final arbiters in disputes in society," Zuma's office said.

On social media, the president's supporters were not as restrained, some even calling on Ramaphosa to be axed immediately as deputy president.

And then there was the High Court ruling in Pretoria on Friday which declared that national director of public prosecutions Shaun Abrahams must vacate his seat, and that Zuma was conflicted in appointing him and should let the deputy president appoint the next chief prosecutor.

Although Zuma is appealing, it is doubtful that - in the case his camp wins the conference - he'll have an appetite to keep Ramaphosa, knowing that the deputy president may end up having power to appoint a person who would prosecute him.

The irony is that it was Zuma who revived Ramaphosa's political career when it seemed dead and buried. Without Zuma's blessing, Ramaphosa would not have been elected ANC deputy president by the party's national conference in 2012.

Zuma had fallen out with his deputy at the time, Kgalema Motlanthe, and needed a running mate who could help him win the delegates from Gauteng, Limpopo and other northern provinces which would have been wary of a slate that had both the president and his deputy from KwaZulu-Natal.

Ramaphosa, on the other hand, had no discernible constituency in the ANC and knew that he would have to join the Zuma bandwagon to stand a chance.

When Free State premier Ace Magashule and other Zuma loyalists approached Ramaphosa to run, he had already earned their trust as chairman of the party's disciplinary appeals committee, which was responsible for expelling Zuma's nemesis Julius Malema from the ANC for misconduct.


In October 1991, he was a visiting professor of law at
Stanford University, California. He is the honorary consul general for Iceland in South Africa.

For Zuma and his supporters the plan was never to make Ramaphosa president, but to use him to help Zuma win the fight against Motlanthe.

They considered him less of a threat, pointing to his reputation as a leader who refused to run for any position unless he was guaranteed that he would win. Apparently it took Magashule and his comrades a while to get Ramaphosa to agree because he feared that losing to Motlanthe would put paid to his political ambitions.

And so they figured he would not run for the ANC presidency unless they told him they wanted him to. They were wrong.


An old hand in politics, Ramaphosa entered the deal with his eyes wide open, knowing that he would have to bide his time while waiting for the perfect opportunity to declare his availability for the job.

In the early years of his deputy presidency he came across as one of Zuma's defenders, never missing an opportunity to credit Zuma for any progress being made in government - be it the adoption of the National Development Plan or successes of a government department.

As Zuma's scandals grew, Ramaphosa sought to distance himself from the man by keeping quiet - not commenting in public about Nkandla, the ANC's attacks on then public protector Thuli Madonsela as well as many court rulings against the government.

Political foes and supporters alike criticised Ramaphosa for keeping mum, saying this was not a sign of great leadership.

A union man

In 1982 he became the first general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers. He was a prominent figure in  extraparliamentary politics in the 1980s through his trade union work. Ramaphosa was elected secretary-general of the ANC in 1991 and is the deputy president of South Africa

But the axing of Nhlanhla Nene as finance minister in December 2015 led him to speak out against state capture by the Guptas, Zuma's friends.

It turned Ramaphosa into a rallying point for those in the ANC who are opposed to Zuma and are the dominant faction. If he wins next week, it will largely be due to a revolt against Zuma's leadership style.

However, the greatest threat to his campaign is that while he appears to have focused on winning the hearts and minds of South Africans - presenting himself as the direct opposite of what Zuma stands for - his message may not have resonated with all the important constituencies that make up the ANC's 900,000-strong membership.

A large section of the ANC thrives on the mythology of the party being anti-establishment - even though it is in government.

Its leaders are expected to show they have a healthy suspicion of the corporate sector, the judiciary and the media. A tirade against "white monopoly capital" and other socioeconomic evils is supposed to win you points with the youth league and other "radical" constituencies in the party.

Ramaphosa has not done much of that in his campaign, which at times sounded perfectly pitched for the boardrooms and university halls rather than mass rallies in township stadiums.


He and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari were independent inspectors of paramilitary weapon dumps in Northern Ireland after the 1998 peace accords.

His case would also not have been helped by the enthusiastic support from business and other quarters that are historically viewed by sections of the ANC as being "hostile to the national liberation movement". An endorsement by a banking group, a mining company or newspaper columnist can be a barrier to your election in the current ANC.

In a bid to address criticism that he did not talk enough about his plans to revive the economy if he wins, Ramaphosa may have "overreached" in the eyes of his comrades by announcing his "New Deal" without first getting the buy-in of party structures.

But there are those in the party who see his break with past practices as a positive sign that shows his willingness to reform the 105-year-old organisation.

Whether he wins depends on whether the party's rank and file believe that reforms are needed to protect the ANC from losing power in 2019.